Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place, eds., I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, Les Figues Press, 2012
This is the essay issue of DIAGRAM so it seems worth spending some time problematizing one of the common assumptions about essays (or, maybe, language), that the role of the written word is to take an experience or an idea and to relate it in a particular way. Like the essayist should go about the countryside and tell us about our thumbs. Or the essayist can with art and wit lead us to an understanding that the essayist already has. All of which is what many essayists and writers are trying to do, tied to a way of reading in which it is perfectly fair to complain you were not told this or that was withheld from you. But it's not inherent or necessary and something else could also happen, like I'm sure I would totally disagree if I had shot an elephant myself.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I'll Drown My Book is thrilling and wonderful exactly because of its problematizing, its invitation to the reader that she should after all be a part of the whole process1. Not that the writers don't sometimes have an understanding, or that they aren't involved in something similar to a relationship between themselves and the reader. Just that there is (quite literally) space for something different here.
By conception I'll Drown My Book suggests a couple of questions. One, how is "conceptual writing" being defined, and two, what in particular happens when that definition is taken up by women. There are some answers given from the start. Editor Laynie Browne notes that "this writing does not attempt to create neatly drawn solutions, commentary or speakers, but rather to experiment not for the sake of experimentation but with the desire to reveal something previously obscured" neatly offering something like an answer to both questions. Editor Caroline Bergvall, after mapping some similarities to and departures from conceptual art, says that "the main point of commonality is that the pieces included here all share an acute awareness of the literarity of literature, of the paratextuality of the book, of the technologies of writing, of the examination of the poetic function." Perhaps one of the most important answers to the questions of the book, however, is the exposed reality Brown recognizes, that "it is often at the stage of anthologizing that numbers start to shift so that women are not adequately represented." Anyone who doesn't recognize that women are still being massively underrepresented is willfully ignorant, and likewise for anyone who questions why a book like this is necessary.
The collection groups the writers in regard to three forms or concerns: "structure," "matter," and "event." Most writers give a few representative excerpts followed by a brief artistic statement that clarifies some of their thoughts on conceptual writing and the given work (or, sometimes, just confuses it all a bit more). Some writers only give excerpts, some only artist statements. There are a few writers who are likely familiar to most everyone who picks up the book, like Susan Howe, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Bhanu Kapil, Kathy Acker, &c. There are also a wide range of writers most people have probably not yet encountered, working in modes both familiar and really weird.
So, then, back to problematizing, the troubling of authority and meaning that makes the book so worthwhile. Not to suggest that the book is a book of essays. I am the type of reader who is inclined to ask myself if I could maybe think of everything I read as an essay, and I will admit that only a portion of what is here is actually essay (from the names you would expect to write an essay, for the most part). But yes to suggest that the way the book fucks with some of these ideas is its most exciting quality, and yes also to suggest that the maybe implied link between "women" and "fucking with these ideas" is more than coincidence. Which is the last thing I'll say about gender except that I had some friends over for drinks the day this book arrived in the mail and one friend, reading the title out loud to her girlfriend, saw it as I'll Drown My Baby instead of I'll Drown My Book. Later, we placed our hand on the book, asked it questions about our futures, and then flipped randomly and pointed at a line to get our answers, which I'll suggest as a good way to read it.
Blacked out lines, white space and some more white space and crowds of words, diagrams and images and more white space: the book is a messy joy to flip through. And, also, to read. It is quite so a polyvocality of polyvocalities, inclined toward contradicting itself and not saying some things and saying some other things over and over again. If the book were a hydra she would have had a long life with a lot of sword fights but kept keeping on. Collage is maybe a technique that comes to mind here in the way collage shows we are out of place and shows that we make meaning together, and although there's a lot of collage here I think the fact that most every piece speaks back to the whole through the artist statements makes it something else, like a theme party. Let's all go camping together this weekend. That sort of thing.
After most paragraphs of this review I stop and think that this seems like the place where I should probably quote some from the excerpts but I also want to resist it. If I go with Inger Christensen, "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist," and then with Joan Retallack, ""she said now that she thought about it / she thought it must have had something / to do with that feeling of self possession in / the moment after the apostrophe took hold," then I'm implying that there's some similarities here and that these might be what you'll find in the book. Which you won't, you'll probably find Christine Wertheim,
fUck fUck fUck fUck fUck fUck fUck
or something else that didn't stick with me the first time but if you stuck my attention to it then it would. And to be honest I don't have a scanner and the thing I really want to show people, these shells with words connected to them by diagrammatic lines, I can't recreate them without a scanner. They're really beautiful drawings and the writer, a.rawlings, says that the book of them "pairs found text and image to create a series of seventy-eight tarot cards that blur interpretive and divinatory reading practices." It seems off to urge you to read a book without giving a good sampling from it, but there you go.
There's also the impulse that I should probably quote the statements about writing. These, also, face the problem that picking a few can't hint to the whole, even after stressing that they contradict and compliment one another and that for as many sentences thick with theory there are others that seem to keep all their theory somewhere in the background. But once again this is the whole reason I want you to read it. Cia Rinne says "There is something very liberating to language operating beyond its commonly accepted functions; you could call it linguistic anarchy," which is what I see here. It's anarchic and even if I don't really get clutched by all the voices, that's as much the point (listening to those voices that don't clutch me) as is the fact that there are others that feel like they are now necessary for me.
Mónica de la Torre talks about "a disavowal of totalizing views and its products, an embrace of process," and when conceptual writing is functioning the way I most care about that process includes the reader (me). Maybe it's selfish to say. But the book itself, in that regard, anarchically beautiful, invites the reader. It makes its own rules and sometimes it follows them, which implies that you, reader, too, should make your own rules and sometimes follow them. It's a koan of a map to some writers you probably don't know and you might love. It acknowledges that we can't possibly be expected to understand ourselves unless we listen to each other while recognizing too that it is our task alone to understand ourselves. I want to pick it up and ask it a divinatory question and put my hand on a random line again, and in return Dodie Bellamy says "My thoughts flutter down your purple neck and that gives me a hard-on." What else could I want from something like this? [TF]
1 Juliana Spahr, Everybody's Autonomy